The Holocaust and My Life: on Family and Surviving Part I

My grandfather, in 2001, with my then one week old son.

“On October 10, 1942, we woke up because of loud screaming, crying, swearing in German, and sounds of sporadic gunfire. We understood that our ghetto population was being marched to the railroad station.

After three days of practically no food, I announced that I would try to escape later that afternoon. My parents were shocked, noticing two Nazi armed guards outside the fenced garden. Their posts were some 100ft apart overlooking a ravine down to grazing land with buildings some 400ft away. The guards would meet each other halfway between their posts, right in front of our hideout. After they chatted, they would slowly return to their posts.

With the guards turned away from me as they were returning to their posts, I snuck out of the shed, jumped the fences, and ran down the ravine. About halfway down the ravine, I heard command screams in German; Halt! Halt! They turned their submachine guns on me. I ran in a zigzag, staying low to the ground. What lousy shots, I thought as I reached the other side. What a waste of ammo.”

This is an excerpt from a speech my grandfather used to give church groups and other organizations about his Holocaust experience. His story is like some I’m sure you’ve heard before, with ghettos, concentration camps, starvation, and survival.

When originally asked to be a contributing writer for TC Jewfolk, I knew I wanted to eventually write about being a third generation survivor, the effect that has had on my life, and if being a fourth generation survivor would have an equivalent effect on the lives of my children (spoiler alert… I don’t think it will – more about that in Part II next month). In the meantime, with Yom HaShoah just a couple days away, it seemed like the right time think about and write about the Holocaust.

My grandfather, who passed away five years ago, was defined by his Holocaust experience. How could he not be with the things he saw, the situations he faced, and how he had to overcome them? Fittingly, after immigrating to the United States, raising a family, and working for the same company for more than thirty years, he dedicated much of his retirement to teaching about the Holocaust.

During his speeches, through recitation of his own story of survival mixed with some general Holocaust history, his goal was to educate and inform youth and leaders in a way to ensure that history could not and would not repeat itself. He also wrote a short book that goes into more detail. I have started to put up a very simple website in memory of my grandfather, on which you can read his speech and hopefully soon be able to read the book. Here’s the link…

I started hearing his story of survival at a young age. I never remember not hearing it, not knowing about his escapes from death. I was proud of being the grandchild of survivors (my grandmother also survived the ghettos), and always actively engaged in any Holocaust discussions at Sunday school. As a teenager, I felt my entire Jewish identity was centered around my grandparents being survivors. At the time, the theology and traditions weren’t what made me a Jew, my grandparent’s survival did. If I would have had to go ten years without a visit to a synagogue or a Shabbat dinner (which I never did), my unique tie to Judaism would never have lessened.

Whenever I try to analyze the reasons behind my connection to Judaism, it always seems to come back to my grandparents’ experience. If my grandparents and so many others went through so much just so our people could survive, then how could I turn my back on our religion? I often wonder if that specific connection to the Holocaust and Judaism unique. I would like to hear from you about how the Holocaust has affected your faith, whether or not you are a third generation survivor.

I guess I have a lot more questions about this topic then insight… Questions on how the teachings of the Holocaust will affect each future generation, questions on how there are people out there that deny the events of the Holocaust ever occurred, questions on how it’s possible bigotry and hatred are still so prevalent around the world and closer to home, as well as more personal questions, like… what if, while running from those German shoulders, my grandfather would have zigged when he should have zagged, left to die with the six million others?

As we approach Yom HaShoah, I think more about my grandfather, his experiences, and the role he played in my upbringing. And as I’ll be doing, I encourage everybody on Monday to light a candle and take a few moments to remember those that perished during the holocaust, as well as those that survived.

Next month I’ll get more into the effect the Holocaust has had on my adult life, and more importantly what it may mean for the fourth generation, as I have two children who are just starting to learn about the war. If you have thoughts on what I wrote above, or what I’m planning to write next month, please leave a comment below (or email me directly if you prefer to be less public).